Old Hobart Town

In 1849 1 Sloane Street Battery Point was sold to iconic shipbuilder John Watson and his wife Mary.

The complete story of this man, who beyond shipbuilding was a great humanitarian and oversaw the building of a number of prominent Tasmanian structures such as the King Island lighthouse and many of Hobart’s main wharves, could occupy an entire book.

During the period he lived in house, John Watson was building ships at his shipyard in the wharves across Napoleon Street (presently Taylor Brothers) and at two other locations.

He was granted a substantial plot of land bounded by Napoleon Street and the western side of Sloane Street, which presently encompasses Sloane’s original cottage and stables at Number 2 Sloane Street, as well as the ‘White House’ at 11 Napoleon Street, and ‘Oakington’ at 15 Napoleon Street. The ‘White House’ and ‘Oakington’ were owned, respectively, by John’s brother George who was a successful ship owner and businessman, and another whaling friend.

During the late 1840’s whaling activities were at their height, and big business it was indeed for Hobart Town. Quite apart from the requirements of the home fleet (which at that time numbered about 40), the port also had to service the foreign whaling ships which happened to drop in. On Good Friday, 1847, for instance there were no less than 37 foreign whalers (many of them American) refitting at Hobart Town.

Hobart shipbuilders, chandlers and merchants worked at top speed to meet the requirements of all these ships – and made big profits in the process, profits which were then used again to improve either their business enterprise or their home life.

Examples include the warehouse at 3 Montpelier Retreat, built 1847 by Alexander Orr, a merchant who lived in Knopwood’s old cottage next door.

Another example is ‘Oakington’ at 14 Napoleon Street, build by Sloane was granted to Watson. The house next door (number 11) has an identical frontage and was occupied by John’s brother, George Watson, also a whaler.

One of the most outstanding pioneers of the shipbuilding industry at Battery Point was John Watson. After his arrival in 1833 he began his Tasmanian career as a shipbuilder at Port Arthur, where under his firm but humane guidance the young convict boys from Point Puer learned the trade of boat building.

Several very fine craft left the slip here and when he returned to Hobart Town a few years later he did not have much difficulty in setting up his own yard at Battery Point. Here an impressive list of vessels left his slips over the next fifteen years or so, ships well know for their speed and superb craftsmanship.

Around 1850 Watson was also building ships at Middleton in the Channel, where no doubt he made use of the same beautiful local blue-gum spars which are still used in shipyards.

John Watson’s influence on the shipbuilding trade in Hobart should not be underestimated. He enjoyed apprenticing bright young lads to his yards to teach them the trade, at the same time insisting on a high standard of workmanship. Of the later generation of shipbuilders, well known names like John McGregor, John Lucas and James Mackay all received their training from him, thus ensuring a continuation and spreading of the quality workmanship for which the port of Hobart for a long time held a well earned reputation.

In 1851, Watson unfortunately had to sell most of his real estate in Hobart and Battery Point in order to satisfy his creditors. It is not clear what happened but his involvement in the whaling trade may well have caused him to over reach his resources. After this event he gradually disengaged himself from the shipbuilding trade but remained active as a marine surveyor till his death in 1887.

His only monument is the reputation for quality, something which old salts around Hobart still remember.

John Watson Obituary